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HALKEY-ROBERTS CORP., ST. PETERSBURG // "Low on the food chain' but high on the region

The hourly employees at Halkey-Roberts Corp. earn an average of $7 an hour, about the same as the workers in some of Tampa Bay's well-publicized customer service centers.

A little more than half the plastic valves and clamps that Halkey-Roberts makes go into medical products. The rest go into rafts and other inflatable products.

But Halkey-Roberts is typical of the medical manufacturers in Tampa Bay.

Its products are decisively low technology _ "low on the food chain," as its president describes them. It has only 150 employees. But it still fits economic development officials' vision for a vibrant, healthy and stable medical manufacturing industry for the bay area.

Halkey-Roberts left Paramus, N.J., for St. Petersburg in 1980 in search of good weather and a stable work force. It found both and has never considered moving, said president Charles Gamble. Although it was sold last month to a New York investment company, Halkey-Roberts still expects to grow.

"There's no need for us to move," Gamble says. "We have everything we need right here."

Gamble, an engineer who has worked in medical manufacturing in Tampa Bay for 20 years, says the region works well for companies like his.

The company can train the workers it needs, and it has no problem attracting the engineers who develop new products and design quality controls. Although the pay isn't high, the company offers air conditioning and clean work compared with apparel factories and other manufacturers. Employees stay with the company for years.

Although it has 1,100 customers in 35 countries, Halkey-Roberts doesn't have to worry about shipping costs, which limit some manufacturing in Florida. Its products are light and cheap, making them inexpensive to ship. And it has little need for the highly speculative investors who evaluate companies searching for new drugs or cancer treatments and who gravitate toward regions with well-known research universities.

In fact, Gamble's biggest concern about the manufacturing sector in Tampa Bay comes from his role as a United Way coordinator. He worries that the dwindling defense industry in Pinellas County will leave too few employees to give to the charity, making it difficult to reach his goals.

That's a bigger concern, he says, than any government efforts to help his industry.

"I've never been to a trade show," he says, referring to the marketing efforts led by the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Economic Development Council to find trade leads for the county's medical companies.

Instead, trained engineers make up his sales force, calling on the engineers who develop products for his customers. "We really don't need any help," he says.